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'Waxwings' by Jonathan Raban

Seattle serves as backdrop for 'Waxwings,' a tale of rising, falling fortunes

Sunday, November 02, 2003

By John Schulman

When Tom Janeway, English professor and NPR commentator, happily married and living in an old Seattle stone house, returns home to his sleeping family and goes to check on his 4-year-old son, Finn, he is "struck dizzy by the thought that he wanted nothing else than to be here, now."

 
 

"Waxwings"

By Jonathan Raban

Pantheon ($24)

   
 

The man's been set up for a fall, and it's not a question of whether, but how far and how painfully.

"Waxwings, "Jonathan Raban's first novel in 18 years (amid a prolific nonfiction career), is about rising and falling fortunes, set in the precipitous last months of 1999, as Seattle's paper millionaires, flush from the tech boom, splurge on such essentials as tiling bathrooms in malachite from Zambia, driving BMWs, and having "personal architects" alongside their personal trainers.

Raban expertly skewers the conspicuous consumption of the "Microsofties," who, in denouncing the past and its traditions of refinement and elegance, have only their own vague notions of taste to fall back upon, and inevitably make the tackiest choices.

But we forgive them their excesses, knowing something they don't: In March 2000, the stock-market crash will decimate their portfolios.

It's no wonder that the book's title refers both to the bird and indirectly to wax-winged Icarus.

Into this city enters Chick, illegally arrived from China via a huge plastic container on a cargo ship. Upon setting foot in the New World, he eats a handful of weeds and does some Dumpster-diving. His fortunes can only improve.

Eventually Chick and Tom cross paths, each at a transitional moment in his life. Tom's wife, Beth, has left him, his university has suspended him, his regular NPR gig is on hold, and he is "of interest" to police in a missing-child incident. Tom has some soul-searching to do.

Chick has been assimilated with astonishing swiftness into the swelling population of immigrants that make up Seattle's lower strata. At first he is literally unseen by the Gore-Tex-clad yuppies who share the streets with the panhandlers and the homeless; they stare right through him no matter how brazenly he gazes at them.

As he moves from cleaning asbestos off a docked ship to commanding a crew of Mexicans as a budding contractor, urging his laborers to work with a practiced argot, his identity, as Americans see him, takes shape, and he becomes a Somebody.

Raban is particularly witty and sharp in depicting Beth's place of employment. She is responsible for "Web content" for an online real estate venture called GetaShack.com.

The Dilbert-like atmosphere, the silly pretensions of her boss toward Gatsby-like West Egg finery, and his insistent entreaties to be "smart but not smartass" seem to capture the hip vapidity of those heady times perfectly. Will Beth's work corrupt her sensibilities and erode her intelligence?

The roving third-person-omniscient narrator strays in and out of Tom's and Chick's minds, and makes a game effort at Beth, too. Like Chick, she moves pointedly toward establishing her own identity, her own tastes and her own space, from buying her own Audi and playing Lucinda Williams loudly to buying her own condo.

But most of Raban's attention is upon Tom, and consequently Chick and Beth come across as stock characters, lacking in nuances and deft shading.

His satirical portrait of upscale Seattle also tilts its lance at cardboard props. It's too easy to make fun of a child psychologist who recommends that Tom's son Finn be put on an "oligoantigenic diet" because of the "excess of free radicals in his system -- unpaired molecules that tend to run amok if they're not neutralized."

The question Raban more seriously asks of Tom is whether his out-of-touchness, inwardness and symptomatically his predilection for English literature of past generations -- Dickens, Hardy, E.M. Forster -- is the solipsistic behavior of a deeply flawed man, or a legitimate reaction to the hollow mindlessness of modern American culture.

As the Job-like injustices to Tom mount, the power of this question intensifies. Other uneasy questions surface such as, "Can we take for granted our own integrity as we take for granted the social and financial structures that support us?"

It is for this reason that Raban's book has been compared to Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities" and "A Man in Full," which also address the moral play between man and city.

Raban is at his best as the novel picks up speed, compelling his readers to sympathize with Tom while also tipping their hats to Beth's criticisms of him. Raban is a serious novelist, and one hopes that it is not another two decades before we read another of his tales.

Despite its elegant prose and captivating glimpse of the high life in Seattle, this novel is an intelligent if spiritless fable about class and history, while Wolfe's fictions, in all their flashy excesses, urbane observations, and maddening egotism, remain better portraits of metropolitan society before The Fall.


John Schulman is co-owner of Caliban Bookshop, a used bookshop in Oakland.

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